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The Maiden Voyage of the Tiresias
Faithful readers of these accounts of my adventures with Holmes will not be surprised, I dare say, to learn that it was not often that I was able to gain the better of my friend. His intellect and skills were of so rarefied a nature that indeed, there were few men who could lay claim to such a triumph. Unfortunately, I cannot say that he handled his superior powers with much grace, as his love of the dramatic, encouraged further by a certain mischievious turn of humour, was often turned to playing small jokes upon me, which I was sadly unequal to revenge.
He delighted, in particular, in surprising me upon the rounds of my practise, taking on one of those near-impenetrable disguises in which he specialised and claiming my attention for half an hour or more before revealing himself. Though in short order I came to be on my guard, still I found it quite impossible to identify him with any surety except on those few occasions when he overreached himself through lack of medical knowledge and claimed a complaint that required a close physical examination. Even then, it was often some ways into the diagnostic procedures before I realised the true identity of the patient under my hands and indignantly protested to him.
He always handsomely begged my pardon and repaid the effort by making me his guest for dinner or an evening at the theatre, but nevertheless I would surely have insisted on a stop to the game, save that he claimed that no test could be more valuable in proving the efficacy of one of his guises than to subject it to my suspicious eyes. I therefore grudgingly permitted him to continue his playacting, but I must confess that I would nevertheless have given a great deal to succeed in exposing him to some of the confusion which he so often engendered in myself, and this desire was not quenched in the least by there being small likelihood of its ever happening.
I offer this not as an excuse for my behavior under the circumstances, but rather as some small explanation.
The events which I am about to recount began shortly after Holmes had successfully unraveled the perplexing mystery surrounding the disappearance of Mr. Roger Talton along with the eighty thousand pounds in bonds with which he had been entrusted by one of our foremost financial institutions. The details of the case were of such delicacy that I fear I shall never be able to lay the whole of the history before the public, which is a great pity, as it was indeed one of my friend's greatest triumphs, and accomplished only through the most strenuous exertion of his remarkable gifts.
As often occurred upon the completion of a significant and challenging case, Holmes had fallen into one of those extended and severe black moods to which he was prone. As a result, for several weeks I had been attempting to persuade him to holiday abroad, as the London spring was most bitter that year, and I felt sure that the bleakness of the weather could not but exacerbate his nervous condition. He had refused to consider it, less out of real desire to remain at home, I felt, than out of a general spirit of malaise, coupled with his natural indolence.
I finally managed to obtain his partial agreement by placing before him an advertisement for the maiden voyage of the passenger liner Tiresias
, which was to undertake a month-long journey from Dover to Cairo and back, with several stops along the Mediterranean coast. The exotic nature of the final destination as well as the description of the vessel itself, which was of the most modern design, both worked powerfully upon his imagination.
The deciding factor, however, was his suddenly hitting upon a scheme of our traveling separately, with him in disguise, thus placing before me the challenge of attempting to discover his identity among the entire passenger manifest, but in turn giving me a month in which to accomplish the deed. I protested it was too much to expect, and further that I would certainly gain less enjoyment from the voyage if I was not to have his company. These he addressed by promising to make certain I had ample opportunity to penetrate his disguise, and further agreeing to confess himself to me upon our arrival in Cairo, if I had not discovered him by that time.
I still could not look upon this prospect with much pleasure, as it was certain that he would exceed himself to keep his identity secret, and I was reasonably certain of spending two weeks feeling a great fool, followed by two further weeks of having that feeling reinforced by his sly remarks, as Holmes was not entirely above gloating. Nevertheless, I was sufficiently concerned for his health to agree to the project, as he showed every sign of becoming contrary and refusing to go at all if I did not oblige him.
The morning before our departure, I set out upon my rounds somewhat distracted by the task of packing, and discovered shortly after leaving home that I had left behind several of my instruments. I returned to find Holmes gone out and his bedroom door ajar, his half-filled trunk visible within.
I regret to say that my willpower was not equal to the task of refusing this unfair advantage. A glance out the window to be sure he was not immediately returning, and I slipped into his room.
It is impossible to overstate my amazement at perceiving that the trunk was full of female garments, including an appalling corset-like garment whose function was clearly to provide the wearer with not only a fashionably small waist but a false bust as well. I was so shocked I had to sit a good five minutes before I could perfectly comprehend that Holmes sincerely intended to masquerade, for two weeks no less, as a lady.
The disguise would certainly have been perfect. I would naturally have wholly ruled out any female passenger from the very beginning. On the conclusion of his role, Holmes would have undoubtedly delighted in pointing out to me the dangers of beginning with false assumptions.
My first impulse was to put an immediate end to the adventure. I am somewhat ashamed to admit that this was dethroned by the prospect of so complete a victory over my friend, although in justice to myself I may also say that a sense of profound indignation at the really shocking trick Holmes intended to play upon me, and the corresponding desire to teach him a lesson that would prevent the repetition of such an attempt, played a significant role in my decision to permit the arrangements to go forward.
Thus it was that on the very first day of our journey, I found myself -- with the greatest difficulty in keeping my composure -- making the acquaintance of Mrs. Lydia Vernet, a self-professed widow of some years' time, traveling alone to meet family in Cairo, with attractive grey eyes and a narrow face that benefited greatly from judicious application of cosmetics and a softening veil.
If I had not spied the very articles of clothing Holmes was wearing in his trunk, I should never have believed it him, so perfectly did he mimic a woman's manner and so convincing was his appearance. I had initially intended to shatter Holmes's disguise at once, and thus put an end to this distasteful charade, but upon seeing him I realised he would never believe I had really seen through his disguise in so short a time. I therefore determined to spend as much time as possible in his company, to give credence to my eventual unmasking.
Even then, my plan was to engage him in conversation and keep his company for a few days, then make my revelation. So I would have done, except that Holmes, prompted by some devil of mischief, responded to my comradely overtures with nothing less than an open flirtation. Infuriated by this fresh proof of his intention to make mock of me, I decided -- under the influence of perhaps too much of the captain's excellent wine -- to instead press the matter, and eventually force Holmes to the point of confession.
Matters came to a head barely a week into our voyage. The evening was clear and pleasant, and most of the passengers and crew had already retired. Holmes rose late and seldom came on deck before the twilight hour, undoubtedly to avoid the bright daylight which might have exposed his disguise, and I had altered my hours to correspond to his. As a result, the two of us often found ourselves wakeful and virtually alone in the evenings, as on this occasion.
He had cajoled me into several dances after dinner, leaving me increasingly incensed by his deception, all the more so because I was aware that if I had not known in advance, I would have taken his behavior at face value. The embarrassing truth was that Holmes made, if not a conventionally attractive woman, certainly an interesting one, and his intelligence and quick wit made him an unusually pleasant companion. Had I believed him a real woman, I would have been halfway to making a declaration, and should quite likely have spoken before the end of the journey, if only so far as to attempt to arrange further contact in future. The knowledge that his joke would have had so painful a conclusion for me under normal circumstances made me prone to such resentment that I was hard put to conceal my emotions.
This evening, he spoke in so coquettish a style as I escorted him about the deck that by the time we reached his stateroom, I was in a fine temper. He paused in the open door with his face half-tilted towards mine, shielding his features from the direct light with his fan, and murmured goodnight slowly, in what would have been, in a woman, an utterly shameless invitation.
Infuriated past the point of reason, I caught the back of his head in my hand and gently pulled him close in as suggestive a manner as I could manage. But he did not recoil, and instead merely placed one hand lightly on my chest and yielded to the pressure of my hand, so that before I entirely realized what I was doing, our lips had met.
The next moments passed me in a whirl. I recall that his lips parted beneath mine, and he trembled within the circle of my arms. We tumbled through the door, and almost before it was shut behind us I had borne him down upon the narrow bed.
"Watson," he gasped, in his own voice, with a note I had never heard in it, verging on terror, and I am ashamed to admit it filled me with a triumph that only roused me further.
"Holmes," I murmured, my lips against his throat.
He gave a half-sob. "Thank god, you do know," he said, and gave himself over entirely.
His quick, desperate breaths spurred me on while I struggled with his garments, stripping him out of skirts, petticoats, corset. It took considerably less time for me to divest myself of my own clothing. All the while he lay quiet, but for a fine trembling in his limbs and the heaving of his chest.
I scarcely know how to describe my feelings. It was not that I imagined him a woman, for the body that lay shaking beneath my hands was unmistakeably his, lean and sinewy, and even in the dim light of the one lamp his features were familiar to the touch. Rather it was as though some veil had been drawn from my sight, and that having first desired him under false colours, I could now perceive him as an object of desire in his own right.
His arms went about me only tentatively, and he touched me as if afraid I would vanish, as cautious in this as he was fearless in all other circumstances. I myself was as far from caution as I have ever been in my life. He fell back limply, half-swooning, while I pressed kisses to his mouth, his throat, his wrists, the pulse frantic and thundering beneath my lips.
It was evident to me that he had no experience of lovemaking at all, and I was concerned lest I should press him too far. But as I hesitated, he caught at my shoulders. "Watson, I beg you," he said, haltingly, his voice urgent, and I understood what he could not bring himself to openly request. At my guiding touch, he lay himself back down. His eyes drifted closed while I worked him open, involuntary spasms of pleasure crossing his features.
He trembled again at the point of consummation and gave voice to a long, low sigh as I pressed home, his body curving to accommodate mine, moving to encourage me onward. I required no encouragement past the confirmation that I was giving him pleasure, for which his soft cries gave me ample evidence, and soon we were joined as completely as nature would allow.
I had to struggle to master myself. He lay quiescent and waiting, only the agitation of his breathing and an uncharacteristic wildness in his eyes betraying the tumult of his mind. When I had regained some small measure of control, I began to move upon him, and he responded first awkwardly, then with increasing fervor, as ardor overcame his last traces of reticence.
My climax overcame me first, and I shuddered and spent myself within his body, seeking his lips with mine even as I reached the pinnacle. He clung to me while I gasped for breath, and I pressed forward to keep my place inside him while I wrapped my hand about his length and drew him to join me in the final throes of ecstasy.
We lay entwined upon the narrow bed in silence for some hours. He wept quietly against my throat, not regretful but simply overwhelmed, while I held him close and stroked his sleek dark head.
After a good deal of time had passed, he finally settled himself against my side and pillowed his head upon my shoulder. "My dear Watson," he said, with an effort at lightness. "This is hardly appropriate repayment for my reprehensible behavior. You are indeed too forgiving."
"I rather think I am," I said, with some asperity. "But Holmes, how did you come to realize that I knew?"
"If you wished to conceal your knowledge from me, Watson, you ought to have spent a good deal more time investigating your fellow passengers, and less pursuing the company of Mrs. Vernet," he replied. "But I must confess, in this case it would not have availed you. I realized the moment I came home and saw the instruments which you had left that morning gone."
"Holmes! Do you mean to say--" Here I stopped, taken thoroughly aback.
"I was rather piqued at the ruin of my splendid plans," he said, avoiding my gaze. "Especially once it became clear to me that you did not intend to admit to your unfair knowledge. Thus I conceived this shameful flirtation to press you into admitting your knowledge of my identity."
"Yet I refrained from that admission for so long only out of anger that you had begun the flirtation."
"I freely admit myself culpable in this matter, my dear fellow, but I will beg you to consider the account closed and all arrears paid by the one dreadful moment which followed upon your kiss--" at this he paused, his pale cheeks briefly flushed with color. "I was certain then that my deductions had been wrong -- that you had no idea as to my identity -- that I had lost you wholly and forever." He went on, more quietly, "I swear to you, Watson, I would cheerfully go to my death sooner than live another such moment."
It was impossible to doubt his sincerity. The last traces of resentment which had lingered in my breast faded at once. Without another word, I touched his face and turned it to me, and kissed him deeply until sleep overcame him and he lay quiet in my arms. The lines of weariness and care on his face were softened with a peace such as I had rarely seen in him. I brushed the untidy shock of hair away from his forehead, full of gentle regret.
For how long had I viewed him, in false light, as some extraordinary machine divorced from all natural human emotion? I had left him alone and lonely, when I might at any moment have reached out and drawn him into the simple joys that warm the highest as well as the least. I was deeply sorry for my long blindness. Even now, as he slept, his hand sought mine, as if seeking assurance that I was truly here, and truly his, at last. I gave it to him, gathered him close, and joined him in sleep.
= End =